Texts: Mark 2:23-3:6
I’m not sure what to think of the fact that on the final day before a summer Sabbath from church life, the gospel lectionary is about Jesus misbehaving on the Sabbath. It’s gotta be a sign. Not so sure yet how it affects our Sabbatical itinerary. Or maybe this has to do with your Sabbatical itinerary. We’ll soon find out.
Having a clean, although temporary, break like this feels like a good time to do some reflecting on where we’ve been together. It’s been five years now, almost exactly, since you called me to Columbus Mennonite. It’s enough time to have a few stories.
As a continuation of last week’s sermon, this is Called In, Part II. The idea of calling has a long and rich history. Calling is something that beckons us in, to what some have simply referred to as the Great Work. The Great Work lifts us out of our small ego selves and into the collective work of healing and justice and community. It’s what Jews often call Tikkun Olam, The repair of the world.
Called in” is a phrase we’re borrowing from SURJ, Showing Up for Racial Justice. It’s a bit of a play on words. Anytime you have a group of people sharing life and work together there can be a tendency to call people out for their shortcomings. Calling people out usually results in shame and blame. Calling each other in has a different energy behind it. It’s the kind of call that matches up with the Spirit of Jesus when he invited folks to Come, follow me.
Today’s gospel reading presents a pretty spot-on framework for what following Jesus has meant for us.
The reading is composed of two stories that Mark puts back to back, held together by the theme of Sabbath. Held together further by the theme of Jesus pushing up against the boundaries of Sabbath law. In both cases he is accused of misbehavior.
In the first instance Jesus and his companions are going through a field of grain. For most of Mark, Jesus is traveling around his home region of Galilee. It was north of Jerusalem and predominantly rural. Nobody in Jesus’ group owned this particular grain field. But the Torah had generous laws about gleaning from other people’s fields. It instructed land owners to not harvest the edges of their fields and to not go back over their harvested fields a second time. They were forbidden from maximizing the ratio of grain in the barn to grain left out in the fields. The land was ultimately the Lord’s, the grain a gift of abundance, and so some of it was to be left for those who didn’t have their own land. They could come and glean. It was a social safety net, mandated by law.
This practice is prominent in the biblical story of Ruth. During harvest season, the foreigner Ruth goes out daily to glean for herself and her mother-in-law Naomi in the fields of Boaz. She catches Boaz’s eye, makes a few moves herself to show Boaz she’s interested, and the rest is history, including having a great grandson named David who became a king. Many more greats down the line was Jesus of Nazareth.
In our minds, programmed to uphold the sanctity of private property, Jesus and his followers are trespassing, but they’re perfectly within the legal bounds of Torah, and by gleaning Jesus is channeling the free spirit of his great, great, many greats grandma Ruth.
Where they are pushing the bounds is that this was a Sabbath, a day on which work was prohibited. There was vigorous debate within the community about what all constituted work. Harvesting was strictly out, but is this really harvesting? In his own defense, Jesus cites something that David once did, while he and his companions were hungry. They went into a shrine and ate some of the holy bread that only the priests were supposed to eat. The point: satisfying a basic human need supersedes religious restrictions and legal regulations. This story ends by Jesus delivering a line that summarizes his understanding of this relationship: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind of the Sabbath” (2:27).
Mark follows this up with a second Sabbath story. This one takes place in a synagogue. In the congregation there is a man with a withered hand. Jesus is being watched closely to see whether he will heal on the Sabbath. During the sharing of joys and concerns Jesus calls the man forward. Jesus poses a question to the congregation: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” Nobody says anything. Mark next narrates this: “Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved.” Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand, which he does. Hand restored. Does anyone else have a joy or concern you’d like to share with the community?
In this story there’s no way Jesus could be accused of doing work on the Sabbath. He doesn’t even touch the man. He just tells him to come up front, and to stretch out his hand. But this might be one of those occasions where Jesus actually does call out his opponents. They have been publicly shamed. The story ends with them starting to plot for a way to get rid of Jesus.
It’s important to note that these stories, like many others in the gospels, should not be read as Jesus vs. the Jews, or free-spirited Christianity vs. legalistic Judaism. Scholars have puzzled over some of these controversies which the gospels seem to blow out of proportion, or to mischaracterize Jesus’ opponents. Strict and humorless Pharisees certainly make a good foil alongside Jesus.
What’s more helpful is to read these kinds of stories as a clash between different ways of viewing the sacred, and what lies at the core of human conviction – religious and otherwise. They highlight this painfully common phenomenon of how what some consider to be misbehavior, others consider to be behavior that is faithful, compassionate, even logical, essential.
And here’s where these gospel stories start to jive with the story of CMC over the last five years, and really many more years going back. Because, depending on your perspective, these five years both opened and are now closing with a significant act of misbehavior on our part.
If you can think back that far, you might remember that toward the end of that first year, this would have been the summer of 2014, we had a process unofficially referred to as “clarifying our welcome.” This process actually went surprisingly quickly. In large part because years prior the congregation had an extensive process that resulted in a public affirmation of LGBTQ persons as full members in the congregation. It included biblical study, insights from science, storytelling, and study of wider church statements. It was a discussion the congregation had been having for decades. This made it official in a new way. Then in 2014 we clarified that not only did this have to do with membership, but that the full spectrum of sexual orientation was a non-factor in regards to the couples we bless for marriage and who we might call to pastoral ministry or church staff. One of its immediate effects was preparing the way for us to hire the best candidate for the position of Pastor of Christian Formation. Mark has been sharing his gifts with us ever since.
This feels so normal and matter-of-fact now that we might forget how much this pushed us up against the boundaries of the wider Mennonite Church, and put us outside the clear boundaries of official church statements. This was a risk. It’s still technically against church teaching for a Mennonite pastor to officiate at the wedding of a same-sex couple. The language used to describe such misbehavior is “at variance.” We are “at variance” with official church statements – which would make for a pretty good two word bumper sticker I’m sure many of you would enthusiastically use.
When you’re “at variance,” reduced to a classification of misbehavior, it’s important to clarify, at least in one’s own mind, why and how the community is actually being faithful, compassionate, logical, essential, acting out of the best of our tradition. So while certain isolated biblical texts get lobbed against LGBTQ folks, we have looked to stories like these in Mark – where we are confronted with two different ways of viewing the sacred.
One focuses on upholding particular boundaries and restrictions. And let’s be clear: these boundaries have a profound power to give meaning and order to life. They offer a world with clean distinctions between the sacred and the profane, the faithful and the unfaithful. I’m convinced the power of a world with this kind of clarity is one of the biggest reasons many folks hold on to it so tightly.
Another approach is to hold the human being at center. To watch and listen for what brings about human flourishing. What brings about healing. What meets the need for nourishment, regardless of whether this is or isn’t the right day of the week to pluck the grain from the field. This approach claims that wherever there are laws and restrictions and guidelines, they must always be in the service of human thriving, rather than human thriving being sacrificed on the altar of traditional boundaries. “The Sabbath was made for humanity,” Jesus says. “Not humanity for the Sabbath.” We could add that the thriving of all life is at stake.
This isn’t just an interpretative slide of hand so we can claim that we’re more biblical than others. It really is an entirely different orientation toward faith – pun intended.
I’ve been reading a long essay by Thomas Merton, the Trappist Monk, and one of the most influential voices of the 20th century. It’s titled “Christian Humanism” and in that essay he comments on these very stories from Mark’s gospel. He writes, “In each case, what is of utmost importance is the fact that Jesus, for instance, in working miracles on the sabbath, is emphasizing the priority of human values over conventionally ‘religious’ ones. In each case, where there is a choice between the good of a suffering human person and the claims of formal and established legalism, Jesus decides for the person and against the claims of legalistic religion.”
(Love and Living, by Thomas Merton, p. 142).
Which leads into our most recent misbehavior / faithful action.
When we said Yes to being a Sanctuary congregation last August, none of us knew what we were getting ourselves into. If any of you did, you forgot to tell me. We knew that we had been a part of the sanctuary movement of the 80’s, a story we had just retold the week prior at our 55 year anniversary celebration – having no idea Edith would walk into our lives four days later. We knew we wanted to live out the message on the signs we put outside our church building: “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.” “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” “No importa de donde eres, estamos contentos que seas nuestro vecino.” We knew that Mennonites have a rich history of conscientious objection to state policies that violate our understanding of who Jesus calls us to be. We knew there were times in Mennonite history when we have needed sanctuary, and places like this country extended it to us. We knew this was a risk. We knew we were going to have help.
And this was enough.
Aside from a few phone calls early on from concerned Christians citing Romans 13 that we should obey the ruling authorities, this has not been seen as an act of misbehavior by the wider faith community. We and Edith and her family have been surrounded by support locally. Our denomination, with whom we are still apparently “at variance” in one way, has affirmed and embraced this calling and told the story in a number of ways. Like the words of Thomas Merton and the actions of Jesus, this is an instance in which human values take priority.
But this is still held as an act of misbehavior against the policies of the state. And even though we’ve learned much in the last nine months, we still don’t know what we’ve gotten ourselves into. And that’s OK.
I don’t mean to present misbehavior as a good for its own sake. As a parent of young, but not- as- young –as- they- used- to- be children, I have a growing appreciation for healthy rules and boundaries. They help give shape to our lives. It just so happens that the shape of some of the rules we’ve encountered in the last few years have been a distortion of what makes for healthy living.
So what started as “expanding our welcome” with LGBTQ folks among us has expanded through some intense antiracism and racial justice work, and into sanctuary. We’ve done some significant work.
But life is more than work. Which is why Sabbath was made for humankind.
So that’s what we’re entering now. I say “We” because my hope is that these next few months can also be a Sabbath time for the congregation. Not a Sabbath as in ceasing from all work, but a Sabbath as in a time of intentional renewal.
If you’re out wandering about and get hungry, glean some grain for you and companions. Shed another layer of unhelpful teachings you’ve absorbed over the decades, and bring into better focus the shape of your new life in Christ. If you’re in need of healing, extend your hand and see what happens.
That’s what I’m hoping to do personally.
I’m grateful for these years of co-laboring with you. And now I’m grateful for the opportunity to have a Sabbatical to cease from labor. I wish you a time of renewal. My intention is to come back rested and renewed, ready to be called in with you to more holy misbehavior in the spirit of Jesus.